The Wrath of the Zuyder Zee
Old Jaap Visser was mad. Out there on the island of Marken, in the Zuyder Zee, he was the one madman, and a curiosity. The little boys—all born web-footed, and eager as soon as they could walk to toddle off on their stout little Dutch legs and take to the water—used to run after him and jeer at him. An underlying fear gave zest to this amusement. The older of them knew that he could lay a strange binding curse upon people. The younger of them, resolving this concept into simpler terms, knew that he could say something that would hurt more than a spanking; and that would keep on hurting, in some unexplained but dreadful way, beyond the sting of the worst spanking that ever they had known. Therefore, while they jeered, they jeered circumspect
ly. Out in the open—on the brick-paved pathways which traverse the low marsh-land and unite the little knolls on which are the villages: the Hafenbeurt (where the harbour is), the Kerkehof, and the Kesbeurt—butter would not melt in their small Dutch mouths when they met him. But when they had him at their mercy among the houses of one or another of the villages things went differently. Then they would yell "Old Jaap!" "Mad old Jaap!" after him—and as he turned upon them would whip off their sabots, that they might run the more lightly, and would dash around corners into safety: with delightful thrills of dread running through their small scampish bodies at the thought of the curse that certainly was flying after them, and that certainly would make them no better than dead jelly-fish if they did not get around the corner in time to ward it off! And old Jaap would be left free for a moment from his tormentors, brandishing his staff in angry flourishes and shouting his strange curse after them: "May you perish in the wrath of the Zuyder Zee!"
The young men and women of Marken, who never had known old Jaap save as a madman, felt toward him much as the children
did; though as they got older, and came to understand the cause of his madness and the effectiveness of his curse, their dread of him was apt to take on a more serious cast. Even Krelis Kess, a notorious daredevil in all other directions, and for a long while one of old Jaap's most persistent tormentors, came in the end to treat him with a very obliging civility. But then, to be sure, Marretje de Witt was old Jaap's granddaughter—and everybody in Marken knew that this gentle Marretje, because of her very unlikeness to him it was supposed, had made capture of Krelis Kess's much too vagrant heart. One person, it is true, did dissent from this view of the matter, and that was Geert Thysen—who declared that Krelis was too much of a man really to care for a pale-faced thing fit only to marry another oyster like herself. And Geert's black eyes would snap, and her strong white teeth would show in a smile that was not a pleasant one as she added: "A live man who knows the nip of gin-and-water does not waste his time in drinking weak tea!" But then, to quote the sense of the island folk again, everybody in Marken knew that to win Krelis's love for herself Geert Thysen would have given those bold black
eyes of hers, and would have said thank you, too!
Among the old people of Marken, who had known old Jaap before his madness came upon him, a very different feeling prevailed. They dreaded him, of course, because they knew what his curse could accomplish; but, also, they sorrowed for him—remembering the cruel grief which had come upon him in his youth suddenly and had driven him mad. Well enough, they said, might he call down his strange curse upon those who angered him, for twice had he known the bitterness of it: when death, and again worse than death, had struck at that which was dearer than the very heart of him through the wrath of the Zuyder Zee.
It all had happened so long back that only the old people had knowledge of it—in the great storm out of the Arctic Ocean which had driven into the Zuyder Zee the North Sea waters; and there had banked them up, higher and higher, until the whole island of Marken was flooded and half the dykes of the mainland were overrun. Old Jaap—who was young Jaap, then—was afloat at his fishing when the storm came on, and his young wife and her baby were alone at home. In her fear for him she came down
from the Kerkehof, where their home was, to the Hafenbeurt; and there, standing upon the sea-wall that shelters the little harbour, watching for him, was the last that ever was seen of her alive. When his schuyt came in she had vanished—caught away by the up-leaping sea. That was bad enough, but worse followed. A month later, when he was at his fishing again—glad to be at work, that in the stress of it he might a little forget his sorrow—his net came up heavy, and in it was his dead wife.